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May 10, 2015
During summer 2009, a troupe from satirical Comedy Central program The Daily Show travelled to Iran to shot a farcical reportage of the upcoming elections. The story featured Iranian Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, jokingly answering silly questions from a comedian pretending to be an American spy.
A few days later, after the show aired the taped segment, the Iranian government arrested and imprisoned Bahari. The journalist was charged with 11 counts of espionage, accused of “working for four different intelligence agencies: the CIA, Mossad, MI6 and Newsweek”. Bahari was held in prison for 118 days; physically and pshychologically tortured, threatened, forced to confess his supposed wrongdoings on TV, and eventually realeased only when international pressure became overwhelming.
In 2013 Jon Stewart, The Daily Show’s executive producer and host, decided to write and direct Rosewater, inspired by Bahari’s imprisonment memoir “Then They Came for Me”. First presented at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, Rosewater immediately distinguishes itself for its relevance to current events and its unusual style and perspective. The film, already famous for marking Stewart’s cinematic debut, was also the Gala title of the “Debate” selection at last year’s BFI London Film Festival.
Starring Gael García Bernal as Bahari, Rosewater begins with the journalist’s arrival in Iran, following him all through his imprisonment, and finally his release and return to London. Bahari’s job as reporter for the BBC takes him on a journey across Teheran, as explained in a solid and rich first act.
The sequences showing the upright political activism of Iranian communities, the showdown between Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and the civil unrest after Ahmadinejad’s victory declaration are all very touching, and Stewart manages to illustrate them flawlessly. When Bahari reaches the prison, though, the film suddenly loses all its charm.
The farcical tone that Stewart tries hard to maintain throughout the story is probably his biggest mistake. It’s easy and liberating to laugh at the incoherences of the government’s oppression, especially when its perverse authoritarianism is conveyed through its out-of-touch pretentiousness and clownish bigotry. When slapstick comedy and funny jokes happen during brutal interrogation scenes, though, the film clearly shows all its weakness and Stewart’s lack of judgment.
Stewart indeed proves to be a confident director, to a certain extent better than many other newcomers; most of them, however, probably don’t have as many resources at their disposal. Despite some interesting directorial ideas, Stewart’s screenwriting needs major rethinking. There’s too much forced and amateurish will to sound smart, and too few occasions where Rosewater comes across as a convincing feature.
Even if we overlook the debatable awkwardness of an American film questioning Middle-Eastern freedom of expression, and pass over the schlocky, outdated gimmick of having Iranians speaking to each other in English with a foreign accent, we are still left with a muddled and anticlimactic film.
What really drags Rosewater down is the inadequacy of the second act: the conflict between prisoner and jailer lacks depth and suspense, especially considering that the outcome (the liberation and survival of Bahari) is well known; Stewart’s expedients, both humorous and dramatic, fail to maintain an engaging enough pace.
Regardless of its flaws, Rosewater still deserves praise for its irreverent vein, and the idea of making fun of what most terrifies us. For his future projects, Stewart might want to reconsider his pre-production choices, while definitely keeping up the same passion and will to challenge himself.
Rosewater is out in UK cinemas from May 8th